Ray Bakke interview: Seek the Peace of the City

Urban missiologist Ray Bakke will be one of the keynote speakers at Regent College's upcoming Pastors and Leaders Conference.

Urban missiologist Ray Bakke will be one of the keynote speakers at Regent College’s upcoming Pastors and Leaders Conference.

The theme of Regent College’s Pastors and Leaders Conference 2017 (‘Seek the Peace of the City,’ May 10 – 12) is neighbourhood exegesis. Attendees will learn strategies for developing a better understanding of the places they live in order to more effectively communicate Christ.

Perhaps the first name that comes to mind when you think about the idea of exegeting your neighbourhood is Dr. Ray Bakke, a founding father of urban theology, and one of the keynote speakers for this year’s conference.

For more than four decades, Bakke’s pastoral work, writing and speaking have been inspiring Christian leaders to carefully exegete not just the world of the first century Roman Empire, but also the world in which they live. In his numerous initiatives and roles, Bakke has had the opportunity to deeply study dozens of cities around the world. From 1979 to 1995, he served as Senior Associate for Large Cities with the Lausanne Movement. He is the author of many books including the ground-breaking works The Urban Christian and A Theology as Big as the City.

Bakke recently spoke with Derek Witten about some of the themes that will be raised during the Pastors Conference. 

seekthepeaceofthecityDerek Witten: If people were to take away one strategy for exegeting their city or neighbourhood from the conference, what do you hope it is?

Ray Bakke: I say there are two ways to study a community as a pastor. One is you can do it formally by going to the library and reading dissertations about the neighbourhood. Universities have a monograph on every community in a city. The other way is to study every other church in that community and go thank every other pastor for being neighbours, and ask them how they do it.

I would stop my car in front of the Catholic parish and I would say I am a new reverend in the community and I need your help: I need to ask your forgiveness. They say why? I say because I’ve been driving by your building and I’ve never stopped to thank you for your ministry in this city for so many years. And I’d follow it up and say if this is a good time I’d love to come in and have you tell me the most important lessons you’ve learned about being in ministry in this community since it began. And if they were Orthodox or something like that I would say do you have a book I could read to better understand your ministry in this community. 

The strategy is getting to know your community, appreciating it as a distinct piece of real estate, and it comes out of a biblical idea of a theology of place.

DW: What was it about urban ministry and theology in particular that drew you in over the course of your life?

RB: The absolute failure of my white church and evangelical churches generally in the 60s when I was getting started in Chicago. I moved to Chicago in ‘65 with my wife and two preschool children and the city went up in riots, as did Boston, New York, L.A. and Detroit. It was the combination of a couple of movements: one was the anti-war movement which started in west coast universities and spread across the country against the Vietnam War. The other revolution was the movement of African Americans who in 1963 – a hundred years after Lincoln – couldn’t even vote. These two revolutions started at the same time: the country was convulsing. . . .

I had graduated from Moody and Seattle Pacific and then was a student at Trinity Seminary. . . . But when I got back to Chicago I was stunned at the abandonment of cities by evangelicals. All the people who had the correct view of scripture – inerrant, inspired – took it and ran. People who had the correct view of missions, and grew up singing “red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight” – as soon as those people showed up in their neighbourhoods, or more specifically in their kids’ classrooms, they were out of there.

A lot of this came crashing down on me and a number of others in my generation. . . . That set things in motion. My wife and I made vows to stay and study Chicago and raise our kids in the inner city, which we did – in the inner city public schools actually. And really they prospered from that . . . We ended up adopting an African American kid as a result of that, because he became my oldest son’s best friend.

So I came along with others in New York, Washington DC, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and LA. People started getting in touch with each other. . . . We were studying scripture; we were studying justice issues and race questions. What I found most shocking of all – having been a Bible school and seminary grad – was that I could read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, yet I had no theology of the city, which is mentioned 1,250 times in the Bible.

DW: Can you unpack what are some foundational pieces of a theological understanding of the city?

RB: I believe there is a theology of place in scripture. I believe the city is what John Calvin called a gift of common grace: the transit system for people who are blind or need to move about, healthcare systems, the city walls for protection. Universities and hospitals and so on are always in the cities. Cities in the Bible are gifts of common grace.

In the Old Testament, wherever God spoke they built a tabernacle. It might be just a pile of stones, but it’s Bethel. It’s where God touches the ground. In John 1:50 Jesus takes the Bethel concept on himself and says someday you’re going to see the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. I think Raymond Brown, the Catholic scholar was right about John 1:50. I think Jesus is taking upon his person the Hebrew doctrine of sacred space. 

Also, people in the Bible are defined by places and families. So Paul is identified as Paul of Tarsus. Unfortunately the church lost that idea of parish. If you study the priesthood in the Bible, priests were never allowed to be anywhere except cities. They were identified with place. They had to live among the people, whereas prophets could come and go: they were peripatetic. Unfortunately the churches have lost a theology of place and have limited it to a theology of persons and programs. As a result, the evangelical church is really not putting down roots in the city.

DW: At the Pastors Conference one of your talks will discuss the distinction between the theology of the city and mission to the city. Can you unpack that?

RB: I think the evangelical fault line is between these two things. We found – after holding consultations in more than 200 cities on six continents over 40-plus years – that people who have what I call a mission to the city are often following a John Dawson Taking our Cities for God theme, where the city is to be taken in a military ‘take the hill’ model. The outsiders have to come in and take it.

So you get a lot of church planting today that is based on the idea that, ”Okay we’ve been ignoring the city; we’ve been in the suburbs and the small towns, but now we have to get to the city because that’s where the people are.”

The approach is defined in terms of, “We’ve got to go get the millennials because they are all urban.” I call that a mission to the city. . . . It doesn’t start by saying, “Who’s reaching whom and who’s being missed and can we augment the church that’s there?” It assumes you have to church-plant. You go for market share, to use modern marketing language.

The difference between that and what I think is a biblical theology of the city is this: if you analyzed the 1,250 references to cities in scripture and if you do case studies of the 140 or so cities that are mentioned in the Bible – some mentioned hundreds of times – you see a theology of the city and you see how God reached out in cities.

Study Paul’s mission: I would argue that Paul almost never approached a city the same way twice. … Reaching a city requires all of the ministries – the body, the kingly, the priestly, the prophetic.

If you think about the 1,100 years of biblical history of Jerusalem alone, from David’s conquest of it to the end of the New Testament, you see the way God loved that place, how Jesus wept over and died in it, how the church was born in it. You begin to see that kings have a role; there are people called to public justice and care for the city. You see that the church’s ministry becomes the ministry of the whole body. If you approach it in that way you see pastors and church planters are not the whole answer to the city: you have to penetrate the systems. Churches have to become more go-oriented than come-oriented.

DW: So your message is very much to the layperson as well as the pastor.

RB: Absolutely. The pastor’s job is to equip laypeople. If you ask people who they are in the city they don’t tell you who they are. In a rural area they do. They say, “Oh my name is Bakke and I live over there.” You’re defined by your biology and your geography. If you ask people in the city who they are they tell you what they do: “I’m a truck driver; I’m a teacher; I’m a lawyer; I work in the city hall.”

You’ll never get to know these people until you visit them in their workplace, and validate their workplace. That is where their identity is; that is where their best relationships are. . . . The church’s job on Sunday is to prepare for the job on Monday to Friday. 

DW: Your evening public lecture May 10 will address issues around immigration policy and multiculturalism, which are heated topics right now.

RB: Yes I’ve been asked to do an evening public lecture and I’ve chosen to talk about the Syrian refugees because this is a contemporary Canadian question. I think of Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s,” and the Lord is in the business of moving people around the world right now.

I like to say that – quoting Philip Jenkins’ wonderful book, The Lost History of Christianity – if in the year 1,000 you took a census of the Christian world you might surprised to find that over 50 percent of the Christians in the entire world, 1,000 years after Jesus, were east of Baghdad.

It seems absurd today to think that could be the case, that the Syrian church from Antioch to Damascus – and those are Silk Road cities all the way to Xian, China and then across the spice routes – were the biggest piece of Christendom. Thomas went four times farther than Paul, probably made as many or more converts, and probably planted more churches too.

We follow the Roman road because it’s our church: it’s the Western church in all our church history classes. We don’t see those centuries – say from the 8th to 12th centuries – when the ‘stan’ countries were the centre of gravity of the whole church. For 1,200 years that Eastern Christian tradition was vibrant and unbelievable. When he died in 820, Patriarch Timothy of the Eastern Church had over 40 metropolitan bishops. He was putting bishops in places like Yemen. We’ve ignored this. . . .

I want show that it’s time not to see the Syrians who are struggling as just victims, but to give thanks for the greatest spiritual mission tradition in 2,000 years . . . I suspect that the Syrians led more people to Jesus than the Wesleyan tradition since John Wesley or the Reformed since the Reformation. It is unbelievable . . .

I call these traditions within Eastern Christianity ‘fifth commandment churches’: honour your father and your mother. We should bless them for the years that they were strong and for all they did, rather than criticize them for not doing it today. 

I will probably bless or offend everybody in my lectures at Regent.

Brenda Salter McNeil

Brenda Salter McNeil

DW: Sounds like a good lecture to me.

RB: I’m looking forward to it. I really respect the school. I owe a lot to the Jim Packers and the Jim Houstons and the many scholars who were there. So I look forward to doing that together. 

Joining Ray Bakke as keynote speakers at the Pastors and Leaders Conference 2017 will be Brenda Salter McNeil, Karen Wilk and Eric Jacobsen. Workshop leaders will be Karen Reed, Justin Tse and Jonathan Bird.

Regent College recently received a generous donation to encourage new folks to attend the conference. This encouragement comes in the form of a $150 discount for any first-time attendees, and for anyone who brings a first time attendee with them. They also have some funds dedicated to assisting those with financial need. Details can be found here

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